There are several photographs that will endure forever in the minds of people who lived through the Vietnam War time period. Whatever your beliefs about the justness of that conflict, whether your view was from Khe Sanh or Canada, whether you are right or left, most of us would recall many of the same pictures of that divisive time in our nation’s history.

Sure to make most people’s short list is that one photo from July 1972 showing a young, smiling Jane Fonda perched in the gunner’s seat of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft piece. The implications were obvious. The gun was pointed skyward at mythical American airplanes and Ms. Fonda with her communist allies pictured were happy to shoot them down. Even as a young teen-ager this egregious treason offended me greatly.

Years later, as a lieutenant of Marines, I was fortunate to attend the U.S. Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) School in Southern California. Designed primarily for Navy and Marine Corps pilots and aircrews, SEALs and Marine reconnaissance personnel, the school, which was supervised by a number of former Vietnam P.O.W.s, attempted to capitalize on lessons learned in the harsh reality of the Hanoi Hilton. At the course’s conclusion, the students had opportunity to query staff about life inside a real prison camp.

Jane Fonda in North Vietnam

I cannot recall who among the student warriors asked the inevitable, obligatory question: “What about Jane Fonda?” The answers are unprintable. Ms. Fonda may have been sincere in her opposition to America’s involvement in that war, I do not know her heart. But I did learn that, during her visit to North Vietnam, several American prisoners were sincerely and severely tortured because of her actions.

Those who remain critical of American participation in the Vietnam War, and combat in general, often point to the failure of small-unit leadership at My Lai as if it was one of scores of similar acts, when in fact it is the single chronicled event of such behavior on that scale. The notion of murder, rape and plunder as common practice is advanced only by those ignorant of history, the methods by which America prosecutes its wars, and the discipline and professionalism of its military.

I am not claiming that innocents are never killed. But the systematic terrorizing and brutalization of populations by ground forces as practiced by the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge, the North Korean People’s Army and, more recently, the Iraqi Army on the Kurds is anathema to the American experience.

Our political and military leadership are now faced with the dilemma created by those who would be human shields in order to prevent attacks on Iraq’s infrastructure. Pumped up by a false sense of nobility – and an incorrect notion of bravery – the human shields are portrayed as risking their lives for a cause which, like Fonda’s, they believe is just.

The dirty little secret which emboldens those who now put the lives of both American military personnel and Iraqi civilians at greater risk is that they know the value America places on all life, even theirs. Especially theirs. Does any reasonable person believe these folks would have shown up in Baghdad if they really thought they would actually be placed in the crosshairs of our precision munitions? How many of these same people would have shown up for duty in Tiananmen Square?

Not only is our military culture a reflection of the charitable nature of America in general, training is given to all who wear our country’s uniform to ensure proper handling of innocents in hostile situations. I recall spending hours in a class titled “The Law of Land Warfare.” We termed it the “What now Lieutenant?” class. We learned the legalities of war and then attempted to apply the knowledge in hypothetical situations.

“Here you are Lieutenant: Your platoon is taking sniper fire from a village apparently occupied mostly by civilians. The sniper has already killed one of your men and wounded two others. You need to secure the village as part of our overall plan. What now Lieutenant?” Do you: A) call in an artillery or air strike to eliminate the sniper but in the process kill dozens of innocent civilians? B) return fire indiscriminately hoping some of the out-going rounds will silence the sniper, again putting innocent civilians at risk? Or, C) maneuver your forces toward the village while exposing your men to further fire from the sniper but returning fire only when certain of where it came from? For Americans there is a correct answer. The answer, of course, is “C.”

Are there really people out there who for a moment believe that the despots in Baghdad, Tehran, Pyongyang and a few other places would consider a response other than “A” from the above scenario?

The advent of GPS and precision munitions have given America a tremendous advantage. Aside from the obvious military benefits, pinpoint targeting minimizes collateral damage to innocent civilians. This point is not lost on Saddam Hussein who has allegedly positioned many of his military units and hardware adjacent to hospitals, schools, water systems, etc. for maximum propaganda effect in the event of a bomb off target.

Introducing human shields into the equation makes the challenges more significant for both our political and military leadership. If human shields are placed directly on top of legitimate targets that will then become impossible to bomb, the use of ground forces to secure those same targets may be required. The cost in American and Iraqi blood will rise exponentially. Where obvious targets could, with precision munitions, be surgically neutralized and bypassed, our military planners may be forced to develop plans requiring far more ground combat. More ground combat, especially in urban areas, more casualties for both sides.

The infantry squad is the basic building block upon which all larger ground combat units – platoons, companies, battalions, regiments and divisions – are built. The squad is hearth and home, a tightly knit family for the real live men who will be doing the fighting and bleeding once hostilities commence. Aside from the advances in technology, the basic function, organization and dynamics of life at the squad level are little changed for today’s warriors compared to that of their grandfathers who stormed ashore at Normandy or their fathers who retook Hue’s bloody Citadel, room by room, from an entrenched North Vietnamese Army.

There seems no way to appease the insatiable fascination Americans have in studying what we all know to be the evident truths about combat. How many more books and movies and documentaries are required until we tire of the obvious. What is it that motivates very average, regular guys to, time and time again, do irregular, uncommon and heroic things? The Brotherhood of War is all about – only about – love and friendship.

To live at the absolute tip of the spear brings with it the potential for both indescribable joy and horrific loss. A fortunate few experience the depth and quality of friendship shared by those who stand together in these tiny clans. Friendship unlike any other, anywhere else, ever. For those who pay the ultimate price serving their brothers, the living are left to grieve and remember forever.

Even reasonable folks need reminding: We are the good guys. There have been no stories lately of anyone risking life and limb to break into the worker’s paradise of North Korea. Boat people into Vietnam? Hardly. However well intentioned, the efforts of the Fonda types and their modern replacements have only emboldened those who seek to oppress and retain their ill-gotten power. The Lenin-described “useful idiots,” so pathological in their hatred for America, see not the harm they are causing those they claim to be advocating for. How sad then that good men and innocent civilians will pay the price for their folly.

For our young military leaders – the sergeants and lieutenants and captains who respectively command the squads and platoons and companies – their days of greatest leadership challenge are close at hand. Shortly, they will be tasked with life-or-death responsibilities. Victory or defeat depends on their youthful wisdom and abilities to shrug off the fog of war.

The reality of the “What now, Lieutenant?” scenarios are about to unfold a thousand times over. I can imagine such a situation: Your unit has battled its way to the outskirts of Tikrit, Saddam’s home turf. Intelligence reports from earlier in the day said to expect to encounter elements of his most dedicated Republican Guards units. Your company has just seized a small hamlet after a tough firefight. Among your troops are several KIA and twice that number of WIA. In securing the hamlet, you have taken six prisoners.

One of your men suddenly makes the grisly discovery of three Western-appearing males and two female bodies. Each has a single bullet hole to the back of the head. You query the prisoners and they reveal these people to be human shields turned hostages. They further reveal that their fleeing comrades, who have moved on to the next tiny hamlet, took with them a dozen more of these same former human shields. The next hamlet, they also tell you, is unoccupied by locals. No one else has this information.

Suddenly, your radio operator turns to you. Headquarters has just ordered you to seize and secure that next hamlet by any means at your disposal. You have a full measure of air and artillery support available. What now, Lieutenant …?

Richard Botkin, a member of the board of directors, was a Marine Corps infantry officer.

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